Andrew Wimer, Contributor
Sept. 2, 2021
How did the life savings of a 58-year-old New Orleans grandfather end up in the federal government’s hands, possibly forever? It’s a complicated story, but the simple answer is that law enforcement has a “see cash, seize cash” policy at our nation’s airports.
If you walk through New Orleans’ historic Roosevelt Hotel on the weekend, you are likely to hear Kermit Warren chatting up a customer at his shoeshine stand. Kermit is a New Orleanian through and through, so you might hear about how he worked at Central Grocery making its famous muffuletta sandwiches, or about his time as a longshoreman on the Mississippi River docks, or when he helped the Army Corps clean up after Hurricane Katrina. And one subject excites him more than anything else: his sons and grandson.
But a year ago, the shoeshine stand was quiet. With travel and business grinding to a standstill because of COVID-19, Kermit was laid off. But being the hard worker that he is, Kermit saw a future in a family business: hauling and selling scrap metal with his younger son Leo.
Through many different jobs, two things remained consistent for Kermit. One, he set aside cash every week to save for a rainy day or to eventually leave an inheritance for his family. Two, he used his spare time to haul and sell scrap metal, often with Leo’s help. When he was laid off, Kermit had managed to save nearly $30,000 cash.
But to make a full-time living from scrapping, he and Leo needed a second tow truck. Kermit’s brother and Leo scoured the internet and thought they found the right truck at the right price outside Columbus, Ohio. Kermit negotiated the purchase for a cash price, and he and Leo flew up to Ohio on one-way tickets, planning to drive the truck back.
But when Kermit got a good look at it, he realized the tow truck was too heavy and had features that he didn’t need and that would make the insurance more than he could afford. So Kermit held on to his money and headed to the Columbus Airport. Going through security, he was briefly stopped by TSA screeners when they noticed the cash. But the screeners (rightly) told him it was legal to travel with cash and that he could go to his gate. What they did not tell Kermit is that they had also called the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Before their plane started boarding, Kermit and Leo were confronted by three DEA agents. The agents refused to listen to Kermit’s reasons for traveling with cash or look at his correspondence with the truck company and photos of the truck. Kermit, whose other son is a former New Orleans police officer, panicked about the imminent snatching of his life savings and told the agents untruthfully that he was a retired New Orleans police officer, before quickly coming clean. They seized the money, gave him a receipt, and let Kermit and Leo fly home. They had no reason to suspect that Kermit or his cash had ties to any crime.
Months later, the federal government filed a civil forfeiture complaint in court to keep Kermit’s money forever. The complaint is revealing because it shows just how thin of a case the government needs when it brings charges against property instead of people.
The DEA has no alternative explanation for how Kermit came to have nearly $30,000. The government just says that it thinks Kermit’s money is connected with illegal drugs, but not in any specific way. Apart from the questioning at the airport, Kermit was never interviewed again. Unsurprisingly, neither Kermit nor Leo was charged with any crime.
But convicting people for crimes or actually stopping drugs from hitting the streets isn’t really the point. Federal law enforcement has a strong incentive to seize cash and keep it through civil forfeiture because the profits flow directly into accounts they control. And flyers are a prime target for cash grabs because everyone has to pass through security screening.
It is completely legal to fly domestically with any amount of cash, and cash is not on the list of items that the TSA prohibits flying with. Yet TSA routinely detains people and tips law enforcement off when it detects cash. The Institute for Justice is representing Kermit to get his life savings back and has represented others who had cash seized all over the country: Pittsburgh , Houston , Wilmington and Phoenix , just to name a few.
IJ also brought a national class action lawsuit squarely aimed at ending these practices that turn flyers into law enforcement piggy banks. There are many reasons to carry cash, and Americans don’t deserve to be treated like criminals just because they choose to fly with their hard-earned money.
Kermit is struggling to pay his bills, but he is back working at the Roosevelt a few days a week now. As the head deacon of his church, he talks often about how he has faith that justice will prevail.
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